A teachable moment in the history of racism

A caring economy: Do you really care?
A caring economy: Do you really care?

Racism, like the other forms of discrimination, is a disease that infects the functions of society.

Left unattended and allowed to fester, it can eventually disrupt those functions so virulently that it also inflicts severe damage and pain.

For me, that is the central theme of the film Ninth Floor. This film had to be made so that an important chapter in the history of Canadian human rights could be recorded and made available for all of us.

Here is a production that uses authentic footage and live narration in both of which the participants themselves provide us with a gripping account of what happened at Sir George Williams University in the late 1960’s , why it happened and how it happened.

A group of Black students makes a formal complaint of racial discrimination against a professor. The university administration dithers, dallies and missteps. The students persist in their demand for justice and receive large support from the university community and the Montreal public.

The confrontation remains unresolved and eventually explodes, resulting in extensive damage to the equipment and facilities of the computer room on the ninth floor of a university building. Dozens of students are charged and convicted for alleged participation in the violence. Jail sentences are served and fines imposed.

The story assumes national and international significance as a major political issue, especially in the English-speaking Caribbean countries of which many of the protesters are nationals. In the ensuing years, all the original complainant students, except for one who suffers a mental breakdown, go on to complete their university degrees, earn post-graduate qualifications and achieve stellar professional careers.

The shame and scandal stains the public image of Sir George Williams University so badly that it does not survive with that name and is re-baptized as Concordia University.

The story is told with such artistic skill that this film has won several top international awards and continues its march towards more accolades. On one of those occasions, it received a spontaneous standing ovation from the international audience.

I can personally admit to having enjoyed the production team’s artistry when I attended the viewing hosted in the Senate recently by Senator Anne Cools and the National Film Board. I was particularly moved by the shrewd and skillful use of an inter-generational thread of continuity throughout the film.

That thread of continuity is a powerful political statement. And the fact that a viewing was held in Ottawa on Parliament Hill has its own political significance. In serving those two purposes, this artistic mechanism for continuity focused attention on the effects of the ongoing events on the lives of the main protagonists, on the daughter of one and on the younger generation of future activists who were to continue the struggle against racism and the denial of human rights.

The icing on the artistic cake came in the closing scenes in the film. That same protagonist’s daughter and her age peers took to a musical performance celebrating the twin principles of dedication to and solidarity with the wider issues raised by the student protest and by the university administration’s failure to address them.

The film ended with scenes of wistful youth, inspired by the experience of an important political struggle, embarking on the painful journey of recovery, with a subtle suggestion of hope for the future, for our country’s future efforts to keep racism at bay.

Congratulations are in order for the whole team that made the film the immense success it has become. It is also a valuable educational tool because of the professionalism of all of them, including director Mina Shum and producer Selwyn Jacob.

The National Film Board is to be commended for its decision to engage itself in production of the film, based on its clear recognition of the historical, educational and political relevance of this artistic undertaking. More of us, including especially our policy makers and politicians, need to understand and learn from the circumstances at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in the late 1960’s that led to a rebellion that shook the whole country.

If we do not learn from our country’s history of mismanagement of race relations and human rights issues, we will be condemned to repeat our mistakes, over and over again.